Waywords & Meansigns – Steve Gregoropoulos on Setting Finnegans Wake to Music

Steve Gregoropoulos is one of the composers working on Waywords and Meansigns, an international project setting Finnegans Wake to music unabridged. For the project he worked the with book’s third chapter, “The Trial of Earwicker”.

Gregoropoulos has read Finnegans Wake. Three times. “The first time I read it like a piece of literature,” he says. The second time he read the book “meticulously, focusing on every word trying to understand as much as possible.”

“The third time,” Gregoropoulos continues, “I chose to read it like a dimestore novel, on planes and in hotels, thrillingly, in the ordinary human way of reading in a blur, and the experience was of having lived a dream that will stay with me forever, the vague way that a great story always does.”

Setting the chapter to music gave him a new appreciation for the text. “I hadn’t understood it as a trial until I wrote most of the music,” he explains. “Greek choruses revealed this to me when they took shape, but they formed from my subconscious: the method [of composition] was trying to access the subconscious.”


Steve Gregoropoulos
Steve Gregoropoulos

The result is a wonderful 97 minutes of music, evoking the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of Miles Davis’s electric modal jams. The music’s power is no wonder, given how Gregoropoulos assembled a veritable who’s who of indie and avant garde musicians. Listen to a sample here:



Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, known also for her work with The Decemberists, provides some of the vocals while Kaitlin Wolfberg layers complex multitrack violin phasing. Wolfberg, who is one of the premier violinists in the Los Angeles pop scene and works as a session player with the LA String Explosion, described her excitement working on the project: “I was really impressed at what an ambitious, experimental, massive project this was and of course I wanted to be a part of it.”

Gregoropoulos describes his process of composition and performance, as an attempt to capture his subconscious reaction to the book:

“Initially I through-composed the beginning, played it from the sheet music, and then kept playing. Soon the sections were looping in on each other and I would read a section of text and play randomly on the piano with my hand practically behind my back, later transcribing the parts that came to life and rearranging them for large ensembles. The piece happened from left to write and then was reinvented, much the way the Wake was.”

“[During the recording] I would read the parts in real time, and I expected the other singers to do so as well. If there was a triplet that was significant or something we would cut it in, but otherwise they were to hear and to react. Even the instrumentalists experienced this as, at the end of the “metal jig” section they move into graphic notation, where I tried to summon the spirit of the Polish avant garde of the 1970s and wrote with Sharpee as the parts disintegrated; a piece of a child’s homework that accidentally fed through the printer became a part of the score.”

“A piece of a child’s homework that accidentally fed through the printer became a part of the score.”

“The themes happened as the piece progressed, and the only thing that is substantively different from the Wake is that [my composition] is not a commodius vicus of recirculation: the piece builds steadily for over 97 minutes. Some of it may feel like a release or a break but that is only, like the Wake itself, because of the comprehensibility of the particular section. Nothing ever pulls back. It is only additive in volume or in orchestration or in texture or in intensity or in tempo or in harmonic motion but there is always something added until there is nothing left to add and we are left in white light where the train stops. Or rather the drain sdops. Hopefully by the end it will all come into focus in the way the Wake comes into focus, not by being focused but by having convinced you to meet it halfway and experience its ordinary virtues.”

Trumpeter John Ciulik described his excitement for the working on the project: “Being asked to be involved with a project that emphasizes the importance of such a great work in the Western literary canon, doubled with the opportunity to contribute to the realization of a composition by the amazing Steve Gregoropoulos is truly an honor.”

Steve Gregoropoulos’s chapter also features trombonist Elizabeth Herndon, guitarist Justin Burrill, violist Heather Lockie, oboist Claire Chenette, saxophonist Vince Meghrouni, flutist Elizabeth Herndon, drummer Corey Fogel, bassist William Tutton, cellist Derek Stein, and singer Charlyne Yi. In addition to singing, Renee Conley supplied the (accidental) children’s homework in Gregoropoulos’s score.

The Waywords and Meansigns project will debut its unabridged musical version of Finnegans Wake on 2 February 2016. All audio will be distributed freely via waywordsandmeansigns.com

Guest blog by Derek Pyle, director of the Waywords & Meansigns project.